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Staging The Grand Duke

by William David Barker
Stage Director
The Savoy Company, Philadelphia


For the third time in its 93 year history The Savoy Company presents the last operetta of Messers. Gilbert and Sullivan, The Grand Duke, thereby completing the cycle of presenting the full repertory of their joint work with the exception of their first venture, Thespis. Thespis appeared in 1871 and shortly after its orchestration and score were lost to posterity. After 120 years, The Savoy Company has left the melodies of Thespis to the ages by never attempting to produce it. However, it is interesting to note that after 25 years of collaboration, and the production of 14 operettas, Gilbert utilizes a sense of his plot for Thespis as one of the underlying themes in the plot for The Grand Duke, thereby completing something of a cycle in his own artistry. That theme is the "trading places" between a company of actors and an authoritative governing body. In Thespis the actors trade places with the gods of Greek mythology; in The Grand Duke, actors trade places with the court of a grand duchy in Germany. Today it is perhaps this theme alone amongst the many other plots and subplots of The Grand Duke which serves to be most relevant in keeping the show alive nearly 100 years after it first opened in 1896.

Sir William Gilbert's original intention for the plot of The Grand Duke was a story woven around the legal resuscitation of a dead man. Complications would be such that the only way the man could be legally alive again would be to begin his life anew, to be in fact another man and perhaps therefore proceed from having learned a lesson from his first existence. Gilbert combined this with the idea of an impoverished German nobleman who hires a theatre company to serve as courtiers in order to impress his future bride and family, thereby satirizing the conditions in recently unified Germany where certain tiny German courts were well known for their desperate efforts to retain autonomous identity. These elements of Gilbert's initial plot for The Grand Duke prompted Sir Arthur Sullivan to comment, "I have studied the sketch plot very carefully, it comes out as clear and bright as possible." However, this was at the beginning of their work on The Grand Duke; it was to become their last collaboration together.

After twenty years of partnership Gilbert and Sullivan's feelings towards one another had become greatly strained, especially as a result of the famous "carpet quarrel" which found them both in court against each other. Though they earnestly sought to work amicably with one another, if only to satisfy their public and realize financial gain, they increasingly found it difficult to come to terms. Both became insecure about their own merits and began to over-compensate. Sullivan, as composer, increasingly voiced his concern that certain of Gilbert's lyrics were unsuited to the music and suggested who should and should not receive roles. Gilbert reacted by utilizing authority over the script and introducing new characters and new plot delineations. Soon the small band of actors in the original plot, employed to serve as courtiers, became an entire theatre company conspiring to overthrow a grand duchy and the dialogue grew to a verbose state of redundancy. However, opening night of The Grand Duke saw an enthusiastic reception and the next day the tabloids praised Gilbert's libretto as "more brilliant than ever before" and Sullivan's music "far above all other living composers." Unfortunately the praise was short lived. The Grand Duke closed after only 123 performances, less than any of the previous 13 productions, except... Thespis. Sir William and Sir Arthur were never to pick up the pen together again. Perhaps they may have realized their own plot lines had gotten the best of them for in "The Grand Duke" as in Thespis it is the theatre character, in a show within a show, who has the last line.

Tonight's Savoy's production of The Grand Duke emphasizes Gilbert's theme of a show within a show. Though he had hoped initially that this would serve as the milieu for setting the show in Germany through which the central plots of the Duke's impending marriage and the statutory duel might take shape, it serves equally well to hold the focus as a central theme. Bringing the setting of the show out of the 1750's and into the post World War I era also helps to emphasize the German aspects of the plots while touching on the sense of theatrical spectacle which Gilbert knew to be developing rapidly in the latter part of the 19th century and which eventually evolved into the Hollywood scene of the 1920's and 1930's. Certainly the appearance of the Prince and Princess of Monte Carlo in the second act is as relevant to the lure of Monte Carlo today as it was during the 1920's and in the 1890's when The Grand Duke opened. Setting Savoy's production in the 1920's also invokes the spirit of "Savoy past" when the Savoy Company first appeared on the Academy and Longwood stages after nearly two decades on the boards of the old South Broad Street Theatre. Many still remember well the era when Nelson Eddy, James Montgomery, Wilbur Evans and John S. Williams first trod the boards with Savoy in the 1920's and 1930's. For those who do, may we succeed tonight in bringing some of that nostalgia to mind as well as recreating for all of us the delight of "simpler times."

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